Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Tax Cuts, Supreme Court Justices, Criminal Justice Reforms: A Look at Two Years of Congressional Actions

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Tax Cuts, Supreme Court Justices, Criminal Justice Reforms: A Look at Two Years of Congressional Actions

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON - The 115th Congress that spanned the last two years was unable to solve illegal immigration and health care problems facing the country, and it ended amid a partial government shutdown.

It leaves future generations $1.8 trillion more in debt.

But between these challenges and failures, the 2017-2018 Congress passed significant legislation on everything from farm and tax policy to airline safety. It boosted defense spending beyond $700 billion. It increased spending to fight the opioid crisis and raised medical research spending for the fourth year in a row.

The Senate approved two Supreme Court justices and pushed through 83 lower-court judicial nominees of President Donald Trump.

And Congress ended 2018 with a bipartisan criminal justice package that undid mandatory sentencing guidelines and focused on rehabilitation of nonviolent offenders, the biggest criminal reform legislation passed in decades.

"We are wrapping up what has really been a very productive Congress," Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said during the final full week of the 115th. "The first major rewrite of the tax law in 31 years. Real regulatory reform. … A bill that moves forward on opioids on how to deal with that crisis, as well as health care research. A lot to talk about."

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who was defeated by Republican Josh Hawley in November, said that one of her biggest regrets in leaving office was "the perception people have" that Washington "is a bunch of smoke-filled rooms and lobbyists and everybody getting paid off and nothing getting done."

"It is nothing like that," she said. "The people around here work really hard, and get a lot done that is not covered that is not dramatic."

Here are highlights of the 115th Congress:

- Major tax reductions were passed in corporate and individual rates, but with Republican votes only. Republicans said the overhaul helped boost the economy and put more money in citizens' pockets. But Democrats attacked the cuts as heavily favoring the rich and dangerously adding to the country's debt. The bill became a major campaign issue in 2018 in Missouri.

- The Senate approved Supreme Court nominees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh with little Democratic support. Kavanaugh's nomination became engulfed in the #MeToo movement when 30-year-old allegations of sexual assault were raised .

- The Republican Congress and the Trump White House attacked the federal regulatory state from multiple directions, ranging from legislation peeling back restrictions imposed on financial institutions after the 2008 financial crisis to a broad assault on regulations to protect the environment. Democrats have vowed to push back in 2019 when they control of the House.

- Despite calls for tougher gun laws after a spate of mass shootings around the country, the Republican-controlled Congress beat back any significant attempts to do that. However, the Trump administration is reportedly moving to institute a ban on "bump stocks," a device that allows already lethal semi-automatic weapons to fire more rapidly.

- While the Republican Congress failed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act per se, it repealed a key provision of Obamacare: the individual mandate to have health care. Democrats decried it as undermining the act and blame it for continued problems with the health care system. In addition, a federal judge in Texas threw the law into further limbo this month by declaring it unconstitutional. The law will stand while legal challenges work their way through higher courts. The situation is a prescription for partisan fights in 2019.

- In a less controversial move, this Congress passed into law a "right to try" provision that will allow terminally ill patients access to experimental treatments not yet approved by the Federal Drug Administration. Trump got heavily behind this push.

- Out of the blue, at least in the context of Congress's often glacial pace, a multi-year effort from conservatives and liberals came together in the passage of criminal justice changes. …

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